Practical tips on how to deal with bullying, the OT way


It seems that bullies never tire, with an even sadder, even more twisted story popping up every other month. 

It's so rampant that entire books and television series have been inspired by true events or are fictional representations of the hateful and aggressive behaviour we're almost used to hearing about. 

Much has been done to address the issue that continues to plague our society – but it's an issue that needs to be addressed over and over again. Because where there are people – whether children, teens, parents, teachers – there is bound to be bullying in some form or another. 

Almost everyone knows what it's like to be at the mercy of a bully, who, for the most part, has probably been a victim themselves. 

We've heard it all, seen it all, and may even have been desensitised to it to a certain degree. 

How occupational therapy can help stop bullying 

I attended the 17th World Federation of Occupational Therapists (WFOT) Congress in Cape Town and sat in on a lecture by Marelé Venter and Natasja Rowe-Rowe called Bully Busters: The Development of a Therapeutic Group Programme for Children and Adolescents, Empowering Them and Creating Resilience Against the Toxic Effects of Exposure to Bullying.

It's here that I learned that occupational therapy (OT) – usually associated with rehabilitating physical disabilities, conditions and disorders – is quite effective in addressing both physical and emotional health as well as child development, and has proven helpful in tackling the complexity of bullying in schools. 

Their approach is practical and therapists use physical activities to foster healthy social interactions. They would, for instance, let children literally act out scenarios to prepare them to confidently divert the possibility of becoming a victim, and what to do if a bully has latched onto them. 

The speakers mentioned that in most cases of bullying, victims often stand out, since they tend to be 'challenged' in social aspects, and so teachings range from coping strategies and social skills to effective ways to stand up to a bully and adopt bully-proof body language. 

Top tips by BullyBusters 

BullyBusters is a South African based team of occupational therapists offering a unique training programme designed to combat bullying in schools or independent groups. Marelé and Natasja offer the following pointers on how to know when you are being bullied:

The 3 key characteristics of bullying

1. It's repetitive 

It's never a once-off event as bullies need to maintain their power, so harassment and threats are continual and escalating. 

2. It's intentional 

Everyone has a bad day and may lash out due to family stress or other life circumstances, but for bullies, causing others misery is an intentional act. They want to cause fear and distress, purposefully damaging another person's body, emotions, self-esteem and reputation. 

3. It's about power 

A bully gets a sense of control through dominating and manipulating others. They want to be the kingpin or queen bee of their environment. 

How kids can bully-proof themselves

As part of their training programme, BullyBusters teach these tips on how children can physically and mentally bully-proof themselves.

Walk the walk: 

Physical posture and demeanour are important in warding bullies off your scent. They look for the most vulnerable and easy targets, and sad or lonely people are easily identified through body language such as poor posture, a lowered head and folded arms. So be sure to straighten your back, keep your chin lifted, shoulders squared and arms relaxed. 

Poker face: 

Seeing your reaction is part of the satisfaction of being a bully. So don't let them see any signs of anger or hurt no matter how bad you feel. 

Don't retaliate: 

Bullying usually begins with a test shove to see what you're going to do about it. A non-reaction is again the best solution, don't get angry and don't push back. Stand firm, make eye contact (or look at their eyebrows... it will seem like you're looking them in the eye) and say, "That's not okay. Don't do it again." Repeat if they continue. Immediately report the incident to a teacher or another adult if this does not help. 

Make friends: 

Surrounding yourself with a good support system is the best way to keep bullies away.

What to do if you are already being bullied

If you feel certain that your child is in fact going through this traumatic experience, here's the BullyBusters way of dealing with the situation, which you can teach your child.  

Take notes: 

If you think you've already been targeted, keep a secret diary, making notes of every incident. Be sure to include specifics like time, date, the bully's name, what was done, where it happened (classroom, playground etc.), and names of bystanders. Be sure to keep this diary at home. 

Telling is not snitching: 

Silence is not your friend, don't feel embarrassed or ashamed about reaching out for help and talking to an adult (parent or teacher) about your problem. If the first person you tell does nothing, keep on until you get help. 

Bullying may be an all too common occurrence at schools but it doesn't have to be, and OT is just one of many tools available to alleviate the problem. Knowing that help is available and where to go makes all the difference, and the best thing you can do for your child is to empower them with the resources to take it on. 

Where to get help

OT was first introduced to South Africa in 1943 and has grown significantly. If you'd like to explore the option of occupational therapy for your child, have a look at our previously featured resource directory titled Occupational therapy resources

For more information about the BullyBusters programme visit

Has your child been the victim of bullying? What did you do about it and what was the outcome? Share your story by emailing to and we could publish your letter. Do let us know if you'd like to stay anonymous.  

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